Sue Frogley on the rapid evolution of media agencies

The CEO of Publicis Media UK is embracing new client challenges, new ways of working and new opportunities to change the industry

Sue Frogley on the rapid evolution of media agencies

How has the pandemic changed the rhythm and scope of the work media agencies do for their clients? How about a project to design and build a state-of-the-art ecommerce platform that was due to take two years – and delivering it in six weeks? 

“This was a brand that literally found themselves unable to sell anything when the pandemic hit,” explains Publicis Media UK’s CEO, Sue Frogley. “Our client would never have believed it was possible to accelerate their ecommerce so quickly pre-pandemic – but we helped them approach it differently. Clients are definitely expecting different things from an agency like ours – and even traditional businesses are expecting us to work faster – and with more agility.”

The story of the fast-forwarded ecommerce platform shows the value of an agency group in putting together new solutions. Publicis Media’s ecommerce team were able to put in a “handy call” to fellow Publicis company Sapient to get the platform up and running. Yet, it’s not just co-owned businesses that are finding new ways to work together to build a more flexible media industry. The nature of the relationship between clients and agencies is changing, too.

Reshaping the media landscape through closer partnerships 
“Clients know that if they want greater agility from agencies, then they need to look at how they work as well – so we’re actually seeing much more of a partnership approach as a result of the pandemic,” says Frogley. “We’re having far more meetings with clients about how we work together, improving briefs and getting greater clarity on objectives and goals. It’s a really good thing to see.”

It’s not just agencies that are revisiting their business model to find greater levels of agility. Media owners are as well – changing long-standing constraints on how campaigns are planned and executed.

“Clients used to set their media budgets for the year and we would know well in advance when they wanted their peak expenditure to be,” says Frogley. “Today, even as we’re coming out of the pandemic, there can be uncertainty about when they’re going to spend their budget. Senior marketing leaders are now more likely to approve things very late in the process. Last year, for example, we had a client call us on a Friday wanting to spend several million over the following two weeks. That was unheard of before, but we’re now ready for it. We’ve put in the processes that mean it can happen. There’s also now a lot more flexibility at TV sales houses when it comes to advance booking deadlines. As an industry, we’ve recognised that this is how clients now need to operate.”

From efficiency to growth
The agility with which agencies are now executing their clients’ strategies may be unrecognisable from a year or so ago. But, that doesn’t mean long-term strategy isn’t also still important. Frogley believes that we’re seeing a fundamental reappraisal of marketing’s role in business growth that reverses many of the trends of the decade leading up to the pandemic.

“From the global financial crisis onwards, it was all about efficiency, efficiency, efficiency,” she says. “Now we are seeing clients looking for double-digit growth, asking how that can be achieved, and realising that the marketing piece is the key driver behind it all. We’re seeing a new respect for the fact that, if you’re going to get the huge growth that companies need, it’s going to require that marketing ad spend. CMOs I speak to are making the argument to their boards that they want performance, but they also want to bring that brand piece back – and at the same time, they’re explaining that there can’t be an overnight measure for that investment.”

A new respect for marketing, and a wider role for agencies, have a crucial role to play in what Frogley sees as the next big challenge for her industry: attracting talent.

The diversity opportunity
“We’re a people business, so talent is always going to be my biggest focus and it feels like the UK has a real talent vacuum at the moment,” she says. “People from places like Spain or Greece have been moving back home because the culture and diversity of London was a big part of why they wanted to live here – and that was lost for most in the height of the pandemic. Others have made big, life-changing decisions that have taken them away from the industry altogether.”

Advertising may have felt the sharp end of The Great Resignation, with people from all walks of life reconsidering how and why they work in the wake of the pandemic. Yet, that disruption creates opportunity, too – particularly when it comes to an issue that the industry is now, belatedly, addressing. 

“Diversity is on everyone’s agenda – every single client,” says Frogley. “We have some for whom it’s literally the number one KPI for their advertising – they won’t do anything unless it’s diverse and inclusive, and it’s a demand they have of our agency make-up as well. Business leaders now have a real opportunity to turn a talent shortage into an advantage and change the face of their organisations by making diversity the priority when hiring.”

Frogley believes businesses are at huge risk if they fail to embrace diversity – but it’s also a huge opportunity for those that do. It’s said that the only constant is change, and this applies equally to the other issues highlighted by the past two years. The business model of media agencies is changing. And she’s determined to keep Publicis at the heart of that change. 

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